This year’s Worldcon took place in Helsinki, from Wednesday 9 August to Sunday 13 August. It was called Worldcon75 (not the most original name, it has to be said), and the guests of honour were John-Henri Holmberg, Nalo Hopkinson, Johanna Sinisalo, Claire Wendling (although she bowed out due to illness and did not attend) and Walter Jon Williams. It was my second Worldcon – my first was Interaction, in 2005 in Glasgow. I didn’t go to Loncon 3, in, er, London in 2014, because reasons.
The trip did not start well. A couple of days before my flight, my bank rang to inform me my debit card had been copied and they were going to cancel it and send me a new one. “Oh no you’re fucking not”, I told them. I explained I was about to visit Finland and would need my card. We reached a compromise, and my card remained valid throughout my stay in Helsinki. Yes, I want my bank to protect me from fraud, I want them to make sure no one steals my money, but… this is the same bank that had previously cancelled my card because they sent a marketing letter to the wrong address and it had been returned with “not known at this address”. So, you know, precautions.
I had planned to take some copies of my books to Finland, so if anyone wanted copies I’d have some on hand to sell. And perhaps I’d buy lots of books at the con. So I decided to take a suitcase to go in the hold (I normally travel only with cabin baggage). I’d already started packing it…
… when I thought to check my ticket. And discovered I had check-in baggage for the flight to Helsinki, but not for the flight from Helsinki. Oops. I suppose I could have contacted Finnair and asked them to add check-in baggage to my flight home, but I suspect they’d have charged for the privilege. And no, I wasn’t intending to smuggle Oscar into Finland. Anyway, I put the suitcase away, and took my usual cabin baggage. And it’s just as well – I saw someone tweet the day after Worldcon75 that they’d not had check-in baggage on a ticket to Copenhagen and had been charged €200 for their suitcases.
The trip to Helsinki was uneventful: train to Manchester Airport, a ninety-minute wait until I boarded the aircraft, a Finnair 100-seater Embraer 190. There was no one I knew on the flight, although two female passengers were clearly heading to Worldcon75 as one of them was wearing a T-shirt advertising the con. After two and a half hours in the air, I landed at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, passed quickly through the electronic passport control gates – I must look a lot like my passport photo as the gate took less than a second to admit me – and then walked what felt like kilometres to find the railway station.
The train which runs from Helsinki-Vantaa to Helsinki päärautatieasema (central railway station) runs on a loop, so it’s impossible to catch the wrong train. And the train is a lovely modern one, with plenty of space, and very quiet. There are flat screens which announce each station, and display the route, in Finnish, Swedish and English. My hotel for the duration of the convention was the Sokos Vaakuna, which is sited just across the road from the central railway station. I’d picked it because of its location and because the website described it as having a “functional design”. This latter proved to be something that looked like it belonged in 1970s Soviet Russia. I loved it.
After checking in, and having a quick shower, I caught the train – the same one which ran to the airport and back – to Pasila, the first stop on the line. It took five minutes (and cost 5 euros). From the station, it was a short walk, across a dual carriageway and halfway down a block to the entrance to Messukeskus, the convention centre where Worldcon75 was taking place. Even though I had landed at 3 pm, I was at the convention for 5 pm.
After registering, I decided to look for the dealers room, but went downstairs instead of up the ramp… and immediately spotted Tony Ballantyne and Chris Beckett enjoying a coffee at the café on the downstairs concourse. So I joined them…
And that was sort of how it went for the entire con: bumping into people I knew, in between arranging to meet up with people I knew. I remember saying that if there were 6,000 people at Worldcon75, and I could lay claim to knowing perhaps ten percent of them… I’d probably still keep on bumping into the same thirty or so people.
I later met up with Tobias Bodlund, who had his young son in tow, and the three of us headed into Helsinki for food. The convention pack included a restaurant guide, and from it we picked Zetor, which served Russian/Finnish agrarian food (or so said the guide). It was also apparently owned by a member of the Leningrad Cowboys. That no doubt explained the tractors and the stuffed cow. I recognised about a quarter of the people in the restaurant, which was a bit odd. I ordered the Karelian stew, which came with gherkins. It was very good. I also love gherkins. Afterward, I went straight back to my hotel and had an early night.
Members of Worldcon75 were given a travelcard for Helsinki, which meant the 5-minute train ride from the central station to Pasila cost me nothing. I don’t know if this is standard practice at worldcons, but it should be. I had one programme item on Thursday: Secrets in science fiction and fantasy. To be honest, I’ve no idea why I was picked for it. And after meeting my fellow panellists – Jane Anne McLachlan, Jennifer Udden, Kim ten Tusscher and J Sharp – I suspect the topic was someone’s suggestion and they put together a random selection of authors and agents. Jane Anne had prepared several questions, and we spent the panel answering them. I’m not overly keen on doing panels like that as it prevents a free-flowing discussion and can seem stilted. It seemed to go okay. Although someone did fall asleep in the front row. I bumped into Adrian Tchaikovsky, who had been in the audience, and he said he enjoyed it.
I spent the rest of the day sitting outside the Terra Nova Brasserie, which was the bar attached to the Holiday Inn, which was the hotel attached to the Messukeskus. I went for lunch to a nearby Nepalese restaurant, with Barbara, Tobias and his son, and we ran into Lennart there. The food was okay. That evening I headed into Helsinki with Will, Jen and a Finnish friend of theirs, and the Mexican restaurant we had planned to eat in was closed so we ended up in an Australian burger bar, which wasn’t bad. Eating in Helsinki was really good for me – I didn’t have to worry about menus, as they all featured lactose-free dishes. In fact, most menus featured meals that clearly had dairy in them, but were made with lactose-free versions of the dairy products. I’ve found you either eat well at conventions or eat badly. I usually eat badly. At Worldcon75, I ate well.
I returned to the con and stayed until 1:30 am, chatting to friends outside the Terra Nova or hanging out in the Winter Garden, where I met Shaun Duke and Paul Weimer in person for the first time. I ‘d been reliably informed trains to the central railway station ran all night. They don’t. During the week, that is. I got to Pasila station at 1:31 am. The last train left just as I walked up the ramp to the platform. The next train wasn’t until 4:18 am. So I walked back to Messukeskus, and jumped in a taxi. It cost me €18, which was less than I’d been expecting.
On the Friday, I met up with Berit Ellingsen, and we had a coffee in the Fazer Café on the Messukeskus concourse (it was the best of the food/drink venues in the centre). We’ve known each other for several years, but it was the first time we’d met up in person. There was another person at Worldcon75 who’d I only known online and never met IRL – but Michael Martineck and I have been friends for more than 20 years. We first met in an online writing workshop back in the 1990s. I’d gone for a sandwich in Fazer Café with Will Ellwood, while I tried to figure out how get Michael and myself both in the same place at the same time… when I turned round, and saw he was two places behind me in the queue. We spent most of the afternoon sitting outside the Terra Nova.
I’d arrange to go for dinner that evening with Gillian Polack. Tobias was up for it too, so I went off to find Gillian. She was sitting outside Fazer Café, talking to… Michael. “I didn’t know you two knew each other,” I said. They’d apparently met at a programme item, my name had come up in conversation, and they realised they both knew me. So the four of us took the tram into the centre of Helsinki, for dinner at Stone’s Gastro Pub. Which was very good. At one point during the tram ride, a guy came up to us and asked if he could sit with us and listen to our conversation. We said sure. I assumed he was just some random nutter on the bus. Later, I saw him at Worldcon75 – he was an attending member of the con.
Back at Messukeskus, I stayed until 3 am, caught the train back to the central railway station (they run throughout the night on Friday and Saturday night), and crossed the road to my hotel.
My second panel of the con was at noon on the Saturday, Mighty space fleets of war. When I’d registered at the con, I’d discovered I was moderating the panel, which I hadn’t known. I checked back over the emails I’d been sent by the con’s programming team. Oops. I was the moderator. The other two panellists were Jack Campbell and Chris Gerrib. As we took our seats on the stage, Mary Robinette Kowal was gathering her stuff from the previous panel. I jokingly asked if she wanted to join our panel. And then asked if she’d moderate it. She said she was happy to moderate if we wanted her to, but we decided to muddle through ourselves. The panel went quite well, I thought. We got a bit of disagreement going – well, me versus the other two, both of whom admitted to having been USN in the past. I got a wave of applause for a crack about Brexit, and we managed to stay on topic – realistic space combat – for the entire time. I’d prepared a bunch of notes, but by fifteen minutes in, I’d used up all my points. In future, I’ll take in paper and pencil so I can jot stuff down as other members of the panel speak. After the panel, I met up with Eric Choi, a Canadian sf writer who contributed to Rocket Science back in 2012, and we had a quick chat.
Last year, when I bought my membership to Worldcon75, a friend who lived in Helsinki suggested we meet up for drinks or food. I used to work with Melody Jane about ten years ago. I left the company, she left the country. On the Saturday evening, I returned to my hotel, to meet Melody Jane. No sooner did she arrive, then the heavens opened. Thunder, lightning, the lot. Even strong winds, which caused enough damage to close one of the train lines. We waited inside the hotel for about twenty minutes, but it obviously wasn’t going to stop. So we borrowed umbrellas from the hotel reception, and walked to Farang, an Asian fusion restaurant located in the Kunsthalle Helsinki. The food was excellent, and I had a really good time. After the meal, I headed back to the Messukeskus, and stayed until 3 am. After a thirty minute wait at the station, I returned to my hotel.
I’d been getting into breakfast around 8 am each morning, at the restaurant on the Sokos Vaakuna’s top floor. But for the Sunday, I decided to miss breakfast and have a lie-in. Around lunch-time, I went looking for some modern art museums. Happily, the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art was just around the corner from my hotel. Also happily, its collection features lots of video installations. I like video installations. Not all of them worked for me – one or two, the CGI was a bit crude, and they felt no better than Youtube videos. But the ones by Ed Atkins and Cécile B Evans were impressive. I also thought the one by Tuomas A Laitinen was very good. Coincidentally, it was all very science-fictional, with most of the pieces actually either based on science-fictional ideas or set in the future.
For lunch, I popped into the 24-hour supermarket in the basement of my hotel and bought myself a sandwich. After spending ten minutes puzzling out the ingredients in Swedish, I spotted it said lactose-free in both Finnish and Swedish on the front label. And then it was back to the con for last day…
… which ended with the Dead Dog Party. This is a tradition at cons: those staying for another night gather in the hotel bar and have an informal party. Because so many attendees had flown into Helsinki for Worldcon75, a lot of them – myself included – weren’t flying out until the following day. A group of us had planned to head into town for food, but that plan didn’t come together. Then we heard the Dead Dog Party was laying on a tex-mex buffet. We also heard it was packed and people were being turned away. We decided to give it a try, but unfortunately took a wrong turning and it took us three times as long to get the Sokos Pasila, where the party was taking place. So I was not in the best of moods when we arrived. And saw the queue for the bar. And the queue for food. But we joined the line for the buffet anyway. Tobias and I had just reached it – tortillas and taco meat – when it finished. We waited. The chef brought out something that looked a bit like chicken fajita. It was the “vegetarian option”. Quorn or tofu or something. It was vile. I went and asked for my money back. I also persuaded the others – Tobias, Michael and Ian McDonald – to try the bar we’d spotted opposite the hotel, the Ravintola Windsor. Ian bowed out, but we were joined by Stephen Vessels. We went there, it was quiet, we got beer, and we got food (I had kebab and chips, it was very nice).
After we’d finished our food, Michael and Stephen left. Then Tobias left, so I headed back to the Dead Dog Party. I chatted to Liam Proven for a bit, and the people he was with – one told me they’d overheard an American complain during the Closing Ceremony that the con had been “too Eurocentric”. By midnight, I was ready to head back to my hotel – the last train was at 12:30. But then I bumped into Sanna Bo Claumarch, a Danish fan, and joined her and Fia Karlsson and some young Swedish and Finnish fans, and ended up staying until 2 am. To get back to my hotel, I shared a taxi with Liam and a Finnish fan.
Will and Jenny were on the same flight as me back to Manchester, so we agreed to catch the train to the airport together. But by the time I’d checked out of my hotel, I couldn’t be bothered to hang around for another couple of hours, so I caught the train on my own, checked in, and waited in the airport for them. And for Tobias, whose flight to Stockholm was around the same time as our flight to the UK. And then, when I boarded the plane – another Finnair Embraer 190 – I discovered I was sitting next to Fran and John Dowd.
The trip to Finland finished in a nicely surreal fashion on the train from Manchester Airport, when the PA first insisted the train was heading to Manchester Airport, where it would terminate, and then repeatedly told us the next stop was Batley, despite the train going nowhere near Batley.
I had a great time at Worldcon75, met some really nice interesting people – not all of which I’ve named here, but also includes John-Henri, Daniel, Bellis, Edward, Jo Lindsay, Hal (Al), Ian W (there was a plan on the Sunday to get the four Ian writers together for a photo, but it never happened – perhaps it’s just as well as it may have caused a singularity or something), Hanna, (the) Anders, Johan, Brian, Jukka, Luke, Emil, Thomas, Christina, Jeremy, Kristin and Erik, and apologies if I’ve forgotten anyone – from a variety of countries (mostly Sweden, the UK and Finland, but also the US, Canada, France, Austria, Ireland, Australia, Poland…). True, I spent most of the four and a bit days sitting outside the Terra Nova, drinking beer and socialising with friends (in fact, the con drank the bar dry of beer several times.) As is usual for me, I went to no programme items – not even the Hugo Awards, and I couldn’t get into the Closing Ceremony – but I did wander around the dealers room a number of times. In the end, I bought a single book – a first edition of John Varley’s Titan for 10 euros (bargain!) – so I wouldn’t have needed my suitcase, after all.
Jukke Halme and his team can definitely be proud of the convention they put together. There were a few problems initially, as twice as many people had turned up as had been originally planned for, but the issues were quickly resolved. I’d certainly put Worldcon75 in my top five cons I’ve attended – and I’ve been going to science fiction conventions since 1989. And I loved Helsinki, it’s a great city. I wish I’d seen more of it, but I’d had to limit my time in Finland because dayjob. I want to go back.
And that was my worldcon.